Hong Kong and Taipei hold the solutions to Singapore’s broken MRT

A string of serious faults suggest the SMRT is in crisis. To turn a corner, SMRT should learn from countries with an excellent MRT system.

By Oliver Ward

Another two serious incidents further illustrate a broken SMRT. On November 15th, a train collided with a stalled train at Joo Koon MRT Station. The collision injured 28 people. The incident came less than a month after a maintenance lapse caused major delays. Maintenance workers falsified records and endangered human life.

Reddit was full of critics lambasting the SMRT for their failings. Many of them placed the blame on the management.

There is a rotten working culture present within the SMRT

One of the most interesting threads was from an SMRT insider. The post has since been deleted. But the anonymous SMRT worker launched a tirade against company operating procedures and staff conduct.

The anonymous insider called station staff “lazy and complacent”. The insider described how “at one station the aircon went out [and] the station master did not deploy fans because [they] wanted to sleep”. The insider described how station staff frequently stole money from the drawers. “There was an incident where the Tanah Merah Station Master stole $20K”. The tirade finished with the insider calling the SMRT “a swamp filled with leeches”.

SMRT used to be one of the best systems in Asia; now it lags behind regional competitors. Singapore’s rail network handles fewer passengers per day than Hong Kong and Taipei’s systems. It encounters more delays per km travelled.

Source: SCMP

What can SMRT learn from Hong Kong?

Hong Kong’s MRT system provides an extremely high level of service. There are public computers in stations, touch and go cashless payment systems. Trains have excellent wheelchair and pushchair accessibility.

Hong Kong’s MRT generates vast revenues each year. The MTR corporation transport people to businesses’ retail outlets. It charges them a percentage of profits.

Sources: MTR, SMRT

This business model is called “rail plus property”. Adopting a similar model would add another revenue stream to the SMRT.

This increased revenue translates into a better service. Hong Kong’s MTR corporation reinvests 37% of all profits back into rail maintenance. SMRT reinvests 19% of profits. SMRT would benefit from increased reinvestment in upgrades and maintenance.

Hong Kong’s MRT also overcame a negative working culture

In 2014, five construction projects on Hong Kong’s MRT were underway. All five were delayed, and billions of dollars went unaccounted for. This incurred a rise in construction costs and a decrease in service credibility.

There was no accountability among senior management. There was a toxic working environment. Independent monitors were not impartial. Company leadership found scapegoats for problems. It does not address the underlying rotten working culture.

SMRT is in a similar situation today. Desmond Kuek is the Chief Executive of SMRT. He blamed recent breakdowns on the company’s cultural issues. He has been Chief Executive since 2012.

In 2015, Hong Kong MTR boss, Lincoln Leong Kwok-Kuen turned the company around. He publicly vowed to clean up the working culture within the company. The company adopted a “safety first” mentality. New working practices targeted 11 key areas.

The company installed a fully independent audit system to inspect high-risk activities. Investment in staff training also increased. Training days increased from a total of 112,831 in 2014, to 122,680 in 2016.

Between 2014 and 2015, safety improved. Reportable accidents per 100,000-man-hours dropped from 0.6 to 0.5 on MTR Hong Kong construction projects. Contractor fatalities throughout the year dropped from three in 2014 to one in 2015. Even escalator safety went up. There were 37% fewer escalator injuries in 2016 than 2012. This was due to measures like improved handrail visibility and stair footprint markings.

Can Kuek organise an overhaul like this?

Kuek has a military background. It may not be helpful in his bid to coordinate a top-down reorganisation of working culture. A civilian workforce does not operate on blind obedience like a military force. Civilian institutions need a value-based system.

SMRT would benefit from adopting Taipei’s fault repair methods

Taipei’s MRT system enjoys a customer satisfaction score of 95%. In Singapore, levels recently dropped to 64.8%. Taipei consistently performs highly because of its ability to handle faults.

Taipei’s MRT developed a database of more than 100 operating procedures. It is to solve mechanical incidents. If a fault develops, the station calls the operation control centre. The centre then instructs staff on the operating procedure of how to fix the problem. This keeps disruption to a minimum. Taipei’s MRT recorded less than 30 instances of delays of more than five minutes last year.

Singapore is in the perfect position to recreate Taipei’s success. SMRT recorded operating profits of S$108 million (US$80 million) in 2016. Taipei has been losing US$20 million a year. Financially, SMRT is much more stable than Taipei Metro.

Desmond Kuek has invited a group of experts from Taipei Metro to identify problems in SMRT. This could represent a major watershed in the turnaround of SMRT. Recent incidents are a signal that SMRT is crying out for a change in working culture. The first step to recovery is admitting there is a problem. SMRT leadership is ready to admit the existence of deep-rooted problems

To be the best, the SMRT needs to learn from the best. The SMRT must swallow its pride and look to Hong Kong and Taipei as an example of how to improve its service. The only way to silence critics is through tangible results. Show the public an improved service and the social media outcries will end.